Jesse Jackson used to call me. He used to call me a lot.

I would be sitting in the NBC News Bureau in Chicago on a Saturday afternoon, cursing the fact that, as the bureau's junior correspondent, I had to work yet another weekend. And the phone would ring.

It would not be a secretary telling me to hold for Mr. Jackson; it would be Jackson himself, all buttery charm and false bonhomie, working my name into every other sentence so I would know that he cared.

He would tell me what his group, Operation PUSH, was planning to do that weekend and try to persuade me to cover it. He wanted publicity, and in the twenty-three years since then he has gotten a lot of it. Some of it last week.

I waited by the phone. He did not call this time.

The media, in my view, have been restrained in their coverage of Jackson's extra-curricular child, and I applaud them for it. This is the kind of story that makes an impression on first hearing; it does not need to be repeated endlessly. And it is the kind of story that provides its own moral; it does not need to be illuminated by pundits.

But not all of the media have been restrained. Certain pundits on the left have been overly solicitous of the Reverend in his time of trial, as if Jackson's adultery was something foisted upon him by ill-willing others, like a mugging; or struck him unbidden, like a disease which he had taken steps to prevent.

Neither is true. Infidelity is eminently avoidable, and no one should be coddled for a choice freely made.

Then there are the pundits on the right who have taken the tale of a single man's transgression and made it into something far more sweeping. Jesse Jackson's shortcomings have nothing to do with the public positions he has for so long espoused, nor do they reflect poorly — or at all — on those who believe in Jackson.

As stated in this column just last week, although in a totally different context, Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian. He was also a foe of smoking. Are those who abstain from meat and tobacco today tainted by Hitler's unconscionable barbarity? Of course not. A man's ideas exist separately from a man's behavior.

But it is neither the left-wingers nor the right-wingers who interest me in this case as much as it is Jackson himself. How could he have done such a thing? How could he have allowed himself to become a twenty-first century Rev. Dimmesdale in an era of tabloid media?

One of the ironies of the tabloids is that their obsession with prurient, sex-saturated stories would seem to make them, however inadvertently, a positive moral force. So ready are the rags to publicize extremes of carnality that people in public life should be more careful than ever with their zippers. And much of the mainstream media is so ready to quote the tabloids that the effect should be intensified.

Yet, for Jackson, it was not. If the tabloids are a kind of conscience, he did not listen to it. Nor did he listen to his own conscience. He looked at a lifetime of public service and the eminence thereby achieved on the one hand and a few moments of whim on the other, and decided to risk the former for the latter. He lost. It could not have turned out any other way.

News-watcher that I am, I could have told Jackson this the first time he felt himself begin pining for Karin Stanford.

He should have called.